A Cry for Justice
A documentary at the Milwaukee Film Festival is a haunting look at a priest who abused deaf boys in this archdiocese.
What does it take for a deaf man to be heard? That’s the question asked by the documentary film “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which will be shown by the Milwaukee Film Festival Friday night.
Long before the waves of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal surged across America, three young men, molested as children at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, tried to tell their stories and stop one of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s most prolific — and horrifying — pedophiles.
The deaf men — Gary Smith, Bob Bolger and Art Budzinski — would not accept defeat. They began their battle in 1974, launching their first organized protest a decade before the case of an abusive priest in Louisiana, Gilbert Gauthe, which was the first to make headlines across the country.
The three deaf men went to the archbishop. They went to the police. They went to the media. They went to court. They even went to the public with crude mimeographed “wanted” posters of their abuser, Father Lawrence Murphy. Finally, they went to the Vatican.
Their cries for justice fell on deaf ears until 2003, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel finally told their story. The old Milwaukee Journal had an on-again, off-again attitude toward reporting the larger story of abuse in the church, publishing some early stories in the 1980s and 1990s, only to back off in 1995 when the paper merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel. It was only after the Boston Globe waged a relentless fight in 2002 to uncover pedophile priest secrets that the Milwaukee newspaper renewed its interest in the story.
The story of St. John’s is the touchstone used by award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney to expose the larger scandal that has engulfed the church worldwide. What made Milwaukee different was the persistence of the deaf men who shouted for decades while no one listened.
Gibney traces the responsibility for the sordid affair to the very top, the office of Pope Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ordered that all of the priest abuse allegations from around the world be handled by his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That office, Gibney reminds us, was once known as the office of the Inquisition.
Gibney lays out his case with one fact after another, clearly and without insulting the viewer’s intelligence, and the details mount to create a damning story.
A few heroes emerge, including a Chicago priest who tried to blow the whistle on Murphy in the 1950 but was largely ignored; Father Thomas Doyle, a one-time top church lawyer who warned the American bishops that the scandal would cost more than $1 billion (it’s up to $2 billion now) and who is now working for the victims; Richard Sipe, a former priest and expert on sexual and celibacy issues; and Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine priest who had been sent in to parishes to clean up after pedophilia scandals.
But in the years before he acted in 1998, Weakland had psychological reports characterizing Murphy as an untreatable pedophile. Weakland knew that Murphy was working as a priest in Superior and did nothing to warn the parish, the police or anyone else. It was the threat of a lawsuit that appeared to force Weakland to act. Even after Murphy’s death, Weakland wrote to a nun that he was trying to keep the Murphy case out of the press to protect the priest’s “good name.” None of this was included in the film.
The film notes that Weakland retired after reports he had paid a former gay lover for his silence but the emphasis is on Weakland’s sexuality. Most Milwaukee Catholics seemed more upset that the archbishop used church money to cover up the problem and protect his good name.
Weakland, Gibney notes, once was looked on by many American Catholics as a reformer, one who would bring about the true nature of “church.” Gibney seems to be saying that Weakland courageously fought the power structure and lost. But the evidence omitted by the film suggests the archbishop knew about the misconduct but acted only when it was clear the story was about to get a great deal of publicity. By contrast, the other priests portrayed positively in the documentary joined forces with the victims, publicly calling the church to task not only for the abuse but for the cover up.
Weakland’s protection of predator priests, his pattern of moving priests from one parish to another when misdeeds were discovered, his indifference to the victims – he even threatened some in other cases – ultimately helped keep the abuse within the church secret.
The film is quite tough on other leaders: there are damning clips of then-Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Timothy Dolan defending themselves.
Gibney does a superb job of taking the viewers back to the school in the 1960s, opening the film with clips from a video of happy children in a classroom, innocent and eager to learn under the kindly eye of a nun in a full habit. One of the deaf men signs about how happy he was at first attending the school with its leafy campus and so many other deaf children. “I felt like we were in heaven.”
Purists may object to Gibney’s recreation of scenes at the school — an actor portraying Murphy in the confessional or strolling through a boys dorm, a room crowded with cots where some of the abuse occurred. But they feel honest and take the viewer to the haunting places where so much abuse took place. Whatever its flaws, the film has a powerful message about the difficulty of confronting respected institutions and leaders that refuse to listen.
The release of the film comes at an interesting time. The Milwaukee Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, citing the large number of claims – 570 – brought by victims of abuse. A federal judge ordered all parties to mediate the dispute. The October 2 deadline for resolving the issue has been extended 10 days but it appears that the court battle will continue.
Budzinski and Smith are among those who filed claims. Their friend, Bob Bolger, died before getting his day in court.
The film, done for HBO, will premiere on 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, at the Oriental Theatre. Gibney, who has won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Peabody and a Grammy for his earlier work, will be present at the showing.
Writer Marie Rohde was the religion reporter for many years for the Milwaukee Journal and has written extensively about the clergy abuse scandal.